Song 299: Tom Waits, “Time” (1985)


I don’t listen to Tom Waits very often, and I’m not sure why that is. I certainly enjoy his songs, whether they’re heartbreaking ballads or carnival barker stomps. No matter which type it is, he still sounds like Tom Waits, expert songwriter and man from a different era.

How lovely is this song? I have no idea what “Time” is about, and I’m not sure I can guess. Either it’s a string of images without a narrative or I’m just missing what that narrative might be. Either way, I absolutely love it; if the song is meant to be only imagistic, I’m totally on board. The phrases Waits uses in “Time” are quintessential Waits: “it’s raining hammers, it’s raining nails”; “things are pretty lousy for a calendar girl”; “the shadow boys are breaking all the laws.” Those lyrical choices are one reason I love Tom Waits.

The other main reason is his knack for writing melodies that are flat-out gorgeous. This song’s melody is so simple that it sounds like a traditional hymn, and its simplicity is an effective counterpoint to the lyrics’ hard edges. When Tori Amos covered “Time” in 2001, she wisely left it alone; her vocals-and-piano approach lets the song speak for itself.

My favorite part of “Time” is that beauty of a chorus, which can be interpreted a couple different ways. “It’s time that you love” can mean either “you love time” or “you’ve gone without loving for this long, but it’s time that you love.” That he can achieve such cleverness without using many words is pretty impressive, especially in a song filled with lines like “Napoleon is weeping” and “these mama’s boys just don’t know when to quit.” The verses are dime store novels, the chorus is the plain truth.


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